Cities of tomorrow: What will the future look like?

The 21st century is a definitive age for urban environments – and one project is starting a global conversation on the trends and priorities that will shape tomorrow’s cities

How to secure data privacy and make urban spaces more user-friendly for residents will be two of the top priorities that shape tomorrow’s cities.

This was the conclusion of a discussion session hosted in Dubai last week by the world’s largest open foresight project, Future Agenda.

This chapter of the global conversation challenged young Chinese graduates to hone in on the future of urban development in the next decade. Mass urbanisation and cities that promote healthy lifestyles were also critical aspects for how urban areas – particularly in China – will look in 2025, said participants.

The event, hosted by Falcon & Associates, is one of 100 small workshops conducted globally discussing the world in 2025, in 20 topics as diverse as ageing and wealth. Future Agenda claims the input of around 2,000 people and organisations will inform thinking on the trends driving change in the next 10 years.

“Why should one organisation look at one topic and keep it to themselves?” said Patrick Harris, futurist and programme facilitator, Future Agenda.

"Often, as organisations, we think about where we are now and where we want to be, but that is strategy, more than foresight. Foresight involves also thinking about where the world is now and where the world might be going over the same period of time. Foresight involves thinking over longer timeframes and with a broader perspective. The Future Agenda programme talks to lots of different people, about lots of different topics, in lots of different countries; this gives us foresight, which we then make available to everyone." 

A successful city should preserve its history

Longchao Huang, Intern, DBI

With the world’s urban population set to soar by 2.5 billion by 2050, meeting the needs of growing cities is a vital development challenge of the 21st century, according to the United Nations.

The group added two new perspectives to the global discussion on issues cities will have to grapple with. Growing urban populations will mean a rise in residents’ demands to feel secure, including data privacy, as society becomes more digitised. Cities will also shift from places where people adapt to the environment, to a future where cities will be designed around the needs of consumers, the workshop concluded.

The young graduates are part of the 10-month Dubai Business Internships programme (DBI). DBI gives 17 Chinese graduates workplace skills and first-hand experience of doing business in the Middle East, with firms such as DP World, Emaar and Jumeirah Group.

Cities’ growth is both blessing and curse for the planet. As the engines of the global economy, urban centres generate 80 per cent of global GDP, while also consuming some 75 per cent of the world’s natural resources.

“The future city will make the most of current cutting edge technology, such as the internet of things, big data and cloud computing; it will depend on this high tech,” said Yikai Zeng, 25, one of the DBI programme interns. “[But] in the next decade, we will also have to consider the [city’s] interactions with citizens, it won’t only be about the concrete jungle or skyscrapers.”

First launched in 2009, the Future Agenda programme is a platform for governments, the private sector, academia and students to debate how the world will look in 2025. The debate about foresight – thinking about the future, rather than predicting it, according to Harris – is also designed to stimulate innovation in the 20 topic areas.

“I’m curious about [cities’] future and how they can maintain their history,” said Longchao Huang, a 26-year-old fellow DBI intern. “[A city] has to remember and respect its traditions and culture…A successful city should preserve its history.”